The French philosopher Paul Virilio famously suggested, in recent works like The Original Accident, that the invention of every technology marks the simultaneous invention of its accident. The invention of the car invents the car crash, the invention of the ship invents the shipwreck, and so on. This is the basic idea underpinning the narrative of virtually all science-fiction literature and film – the malfunctioning of technologies designed for control – from the 19th-century novel Frankenstein to the 21st-century film Blade Runner 2049.
Leigh Whannell’s latest film as writer-director, Upgrade, to be released in Australian cinemas on June 14, is about the machinations of human-invented AI. It certainly fits into the continuum of the sci-fi genre, offering a study of the present through its extrapolation from current technologies in a speculative future.
It is an extremely pleasurable film, recalling 1980s science-fiction revenge films like RoboCop. As with all great genre films, it is similar enough to earlier films to satisfy our expectations, but different enough to keep us engaged. This is, after all, the law of genre – something must be similar but different.
The story, set in a believable future of police drones and dystopic cityscapes, follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a car enthusiast and Luddite resistant to contemporary technologies, who is implanted with a cellular-level AI known as Stem (voiced by Simon Maiden).
Stem has been developed by shady tech mogul Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) – a necessary stock character in contemporary sci-fi – and is trialled on Grey after he and his wife are randomly attacked, near the beginning of the film, by some cyberpunks from the wrong side of the tracks. The attack leaves Grey quadriplegic.
His wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) isn’t so lucky – she is killed – and Grey primarily accepts the “upgrade” implantation in order to avenge her. What he doesn’t realise is that the chip, through its heightened computational intelligence, is able to massively expand his capacities for physical and mental response. All he has to do is relax and let the AI take over. Stem, it transpires, has a mind (and voice) of its own – recalling HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – and the film develops around the tension between Grey and Stem.
Whannell’s film deliberately recalls earlier films like The Terminator and the underrated Van Damme vehicle, Cyborg, both aesthetically and conceptually. But it manages to avoid feeling trite or pretentiously retro. This is at least partly because it responds to the late 20th- and 21st-century fascination with computational technologies and AI in an original fashion.
Earlier human-robot hybrid films have often fetishised the physical robot body as the source of spectacle and action. Upgrade, though, (like the excellent film Gamer before it) reimagines this transformation at an interior, nano-technological level, focusing on invisible biomechanical and biochemical apparatuses rather than exterior prostheses. This tension paves the way for tremendous fight sequences, both brutal and comical, in which Grey is taken over by Stem, as well as speaking evocatively to the anthropological split between subjectivity and physicality.
Every thing about the film is first-rate. The production design of Felicity Abbott is understated but striking (the opposite of Blade Runner 2049 – overstated and uninteresting). The soundscape is completely hypnotic. The whole thing feels a bit like a Nicolas Winding Refn film, but without the overbearing quality that plagues many of his films.
Logan Marshall-Green is one of the most impressive young actors around, due largely to the high quality of the projects he picks (including the superior LA cult film, The Invitation, and the excellent TV show Quarry). Here he offers a commanding and intense lead performance, eschewing the sentimentality that many actors would have brought to the role.
This, indeed, is one of the strengths of the film as a whole. It absolutely refuses to lapse, like so much mainstream science-fiction (and contemporary film in general), into any kind of sentimentality or gauche humanism. This is a hard, cold film, made with a cunning eye and genuine cinematic sensibility. Upgrade is perfect, in the age of Netflix, for the collective big-screen experience.
If one can refer to it as an Australian film – it is an Australian-US co-production involving Blumhouse, the production company behind recent genre favourites like The Purge and Get Out – then I can, without any hesitation, say that this is one of the best Australian films of the 21st century.
This, of course, merely confirms what many cinephiles already suspected, even if some film critics seem unwilling to acknowledge the cultural merits of films like Saw and Insidious – that Leigh Whannell is one of the most exciting Australian screenwriters, and now directors, around.
Upgrade opens in Australian cinemas on June 14.
Authors: Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia